125 Years of Service: WBA celebrates anniversary by looking back, forward

The history of the Wisconsin Bankers Association goes back to March 24, 1892. That's when Milwaukee banker James K. Ilsley recorded in his ledger the names of a handful of banks that paid $5 each to join the new organization. Over the next 125 years, the association and the banking industry would grow and evolve together, overcoming obstacles and meeting new challenges, all with the goal of serving the consumers of this state. 

Humble Beginnings

The WBA has been working hard on behalf of Wisconsin banks almost as along as Wisconsin banks have been around serving their customers. Banking was legalized in the state in 1853, and it took Wisconsin bankers less than 40 years to realize the need for uniformity across the state and formed an official state-wide association to benefit the entire industry. In March of 1892, bankers from all over Wisconsin travelled to Milwaukee for a convention… Some without even knowing what was to be discussed. Meeting leaders informed the 150 gathered bankers that they proposed an organized group: the Wisconsin Bankers Association. Guidelines and goals, a formal Constitution and bylaws were created and ratified, and the WBA was born. 

The association's membership seesawed during its early years, zigzagging from 173 banks in 1892 to 148 in 1895, then back to 178 in 1896. Still, that only represented half of the 329 banks operating at the time. Early leadership urged the association to gain members by becoming more visible, specifically by lobbying government and providing services to members. Today, over 98 percent of Wisconsin banks are WBA members. 

Partnership through Tumultuous Times 

Over the 125 years of partnership between Wisconsin's banking industry and the WBA, the association and its member bankers have worked together to weather a variety of storms, from the very beginning. Just one year after the Association was formed, the Panic of 1893 swept Wisconsin, dragging the state's banking system to the brink of collapse. In the aftermath, bankers debated the need for more rigorous bank regulation and examinations at two successive WBA conventions. From the Great Depression to the more recent housing crisis and ensuing recession, the partnership between banks and the association was the key to bolstering the industry's economic health and its reputation with the public.

The partnership between the association and the industry was not only vital during periods of economic stress, however. In 1909, WBA developed an intelligence network to track and infiltrate the activities of often-dangerous outlaws and established a fund to help banks pay the costs of tracking down burglars and robbers. A decade later, the association established a fund to assist law enforcement and banks with the purchase of defensive weapons. The association even organized a subsidiary, the Bankers' Mutual Casualty Company, to provide burglary insurance to association members.

Serving You Today

Today, the association has several subsidiary companies, each with its own unique set of products and services to offer, ranging from insurance products and technology solutions to compliance assistance. The association's dedication to banker education has only grown since its role in establishing the University of Wisconsin School of Banking at the close of World War II. WBA now provides professional development year-round in a wide variety of formats on topics applicable to every role in the bank. 

One of the most significant ways the association has changed the way it serves Wisconsin's banking industry in recent years is by joining forces with the state's only other banking trade association. On Feb. 27, 2015, the Community Bankers of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Bankers Association signed merger papers, finalizing the decision made in December 2014 with an overwhelming number of positive votes submitted by both association memberships. The merger signaled an historic and exciting time for Wisconsin's financial services industry, with one stage ending and another beginning. The new WBA continues its mission to serve Wisconsin's banking industry, now with the added power of speaking with a unified voice to address the common challenges of all Wisconsin banks, advocate for their interests, and provide educational services and products to support their continued success. 

Looking Toward the Future

The Wisconsin Bankers Association has served the state's banking industry for nearly 125 years, and while how the association promotes and advances banking has changed over the years, its commitment to the success of its members has not. From the farmer/banker meet-ups of the early 1900s, to distributing Tommy guns to prevent robberies in the '20s, to the professional development and advocacy efforts of today, the WBA has always worked on behalf of its members. 

Looking forward, the WBA's new technology tools (such as the recently launched website and the digital Wisconsin Lending Guide) and innovative services will continue to drive change and help Wisconsin's banks overcome challenges. As technological advances, escalating regulatory burden, higher consumer expectations, and inventive criminals all transform the banking industry, your association will adapt, too. The association and the industry will face a future full of uncertainty and opportunity as they always have, together.

By, Amber Seitz